The Bible is coming to Rutherford County. Yes, the Tennessee home I share with both the photogenic hog that now graces the new editions of Charlotte’s Web and those teachers who, as a prank, told students on a camping trip that a crazed gunman was loose near their cabins—as well as the Sword of the Lord publishing house and the district that first sent Al Gore off to Congress¯yep, we soon may be the proud home of "Bible Park USA," a two-hundred-acre and $200 million "non-denominational and non-evangelical" amusement park.
This "non-denominational and non-evangelical" business is important. The Holy Land Experience in Orlando (which Alexandra Pelosi briefly highlighted in her documentary Friends of God ), wacky though it may be, is a nonprofit Christian ministry dedicated to "graciously proclaim to all people . . . the need of personal salvation through Jesus the Lord." The purpose of the Orlando park is to bring the Bible to life so that believers might be instructed and the lost, saved.
But no nonprofit salvation stuff in Tennessee. Bible Park USA is a project of SafeHarbor Holding LLC , a company committed to "lower-risk, higher-reward investment opportunities" for global investors interested in "sophisticated, tax-efficient investment structures." Last year, SafeHarbor began work on a $400 million " Hard Rock Park " in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, "celebrating the culture, lifestyle, legends and irreverence" of rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps having given the devil his due, and looking for a "theme" that wouldn’t require pricey licensing fees (Moses doesn’t expect royalties on Exodus), SafeHarbor turned to the light and scouted out locations for a religious theme park in the Bible Belt.
Eyeing the intersection of several major interstates (with a significant part of the national population within a day’s drive); proximity to a major metropolitan area without actually being one (and without all those pesky regulations that tend to come with development in big cities); large expanses of flat, easily developed farmland; and with a giddily enthusiastic Chamber of Commerce willing to corral the already acquiescent local politicians, Rutherford County got the nod over Branson and Pigeon Forge. To help things along, a Republican state senator has fast-tracked legislation up in Nashville, allowing the county to create an entertainment zone in the area and enact incremental tax financing to assist SafeHarbor’s development.
The news hasn’t been universally welcome. The folks living in the modest rural community where the park would go are outraged. Under the leadership of a particularly media-savvy neighbor, they have organized themselves in opposition to the project and put up an information website . Although local clergy have been oddly silent, many folks find the notion of the Bible being used as the theme for an amusement park repellent. And others are angry that SafeHarbor, supported by the Chamber of Commerce, are looking to the taxpayers to minimize their financial risk.
Stung by the opposition, last week SafeHarbor sent its managing director, Armon Bar-Tur, to spin the project’s benefits to the local Pooh-Bahs: newspaper editors and reporters, clergy, waffling politicos, and a few neighborhood representatives.
Designed by BRC Imagination Arts , the park would feature Bible stories as part of a cultural history, "with the quality of Disney World and the size of Dollywood." Entrance will be through the "Gates of Jericho" (presumably depicted prior to Joshua’s fanfare). There will be a pastoral "Garden of Eden" with a Tree of Life and a Tree of Knowledge (no word on Adam and Eve’s wardrobe). Populated with actors dressed as animals, there will be a play area with Noah’s ark for children. A movie about the Exodus will be shown on a "water screen" where Moses will stand before the flames of the burning bush.
In a "New Testament" area, the Bible will be inscribed on stone-tablet walls similar to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Bar-Tur adds that the "visitors can use the walls to study the Bible" (that will make cross-referencing a delight, won’t it?). The Crucifixion and the Resurrection will be depicted, although apparently not the scene of the Lord with the money changers in the Temple. There will be a "Dome of Light" museum that Bar-Tur claims will contain exhibits similar to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Oh, the Temple of Dendur in Rutherford County¯that would be nice.) There will be an Imax-like presentation where flight will be simulated over the Judean desert, Herod’s temple, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Pyramids, and a series of thrill rides of undisclosed narratives. Because the Bible is presented as history, guides at the park will be dressed, à la Indiana Jones, as archeologists (no mention if they will be Israel Finkelstein "minimalists," or "maximalists" like Kenneth Kitchen). The park would hire two hundred to three hundred full-time employees, and between five hundred and a thousand seasonal workers. Local clergy would be hired as members of an "advisory council." SafeHarbor expects between 800,000 and a million visitors annually.
Because any specifically religious cast to the project would endanger the lucrative tax breaks now making their way through the state legislature and the county commission, Bar-Tur repeatedly reminds listeners that the project is a "family-friendly education and entertainment park." "If you want a religious perspective on the park, you will come with your minister," Bar-Tur added.
There is a slightly sinister backstory to all this. In the past ten years, Rutherford country has been experiencing almost completely uncontrolled growth, with our population now more than 20 percent larger than it was seven years ago. With that growth has come a bill for new schools approaching a billion dollars; this fall alone the county expects to hire nearly four hundred new teachers (which perhaps explains why a few like the ones who played that prank on their students get hired). The threat is that, if SafeHarbor isn’t given permission to build the Bible Park, the land will be developed into high-density, low-end housing. Such a move would not only put more pressure on the county to raise property taxes for the schools all those additional children would require, it also would deprive the county of the various taxes this "clean" business might generate. You don’t like the Bible Park? Fine, the politicos say, no park, but we’ll have to raise your taxes.
It all makes my head spin. A New York investment fund builds a Bible Park square on the buckle of the Bible Belt. Just as they hope to profit from folks interested in rock ‘n’ roll with their Myrtle Beach funland, here they hope to profit from folks interested in the Bible. But folks are interested in the Bible because they are religious and find religious answers to religious questions in this religious book. Yet the Bible park isn’t religious; that would be bad for business, because it would jeopardize the state subsidy (remember those "lower-risk, higher-reward investment opportunities"). So the holy stories are presented as secular "history" by costumed archeologists as its evangelists.
But these "historic" stories from the Bible are presented in ways that are not only ahistoric but also religiously so goofy that only Monty Python could do them critical justice. The clergy, who we might think would speak most strongly against this profanation of Holy Scripture, are silent, raising the suspicion that they have been co-opted by the developer. And in the wings stand the tax collectors, like mafia enforcers, quietly reminding the folks what can happen if they don’t cooperate.
Here’s religion in the public square, Tennessee-style. What a mess; the Bible Park almost makes our hog look beatific and those ill-advised schoolteachers thoughtful. Maybe it’s something in our water. Probably for the duration it’s just a good idea for me to stick with Jack Daniels. (My that hog looks purdy, or is that Mr. Gore?)
Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.